Study Trump’s pick for secretary of state

Rex Tillerson was recommended to Trump by Robert Gates, who served presidents of both parties. Rather than attack Tillerson as a CEO who deals with Russian leaders, we should review his strengths and await his confirmation hearing answers. Robert Gates served as defense secretary under George W. Bush, a Republican, and then Barack Obama, a Democrat, which qualifies him as an honest broker and independent thinker. How honest? He wrote in September that Donald Trump is "beyond repair" on national security, "stubbornly uninformed about the world" and "unfit to be commander-in-chief." Makes you wonder if Gates would have any advice for Trump-the-unrepairable on how to duct tape together a worldview, and if Trump would even listen. Turns out Gates did have a suggestion, and Trump, surprisingly, listened: It was Gates who told the president-elect that Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson would make a great secretary of state. Gates, whose consulting firm does work for the oil company, along with others who know Tillerson describe him as a strategic thinker on a global scale who has deep experience negotiating with foreign governments and maintained his integrity while doing so. "It's a mistake to pigeonhole him as another CEO with a very narrow background," Gates told The Wall Street Journal, a remark that — intended or not — sets Tillerson apart from his prospective new boss the real estate developer. Will Tillerson win Senate confirmation? Should he? Those are legitimate questions to be settled after hearings sure to generate pushback from Democrats and perhaps some Republicans. The biggest issue is Tillerson's work in Russia and his relationship with Vladimir Putin. As Exxon CEO, Tillerson has done mammoth deals there and expressed skepticism about the use of sanctions as a diplomatic tool to confront Russian aggression. For his efforts Tillerson picked up an Order of Friendship award from Putin, whom Tillerson has known since 1999. Based on his resume, then, critics can choose their pejorative: Tillerson is naive, bought off, in cahoots, blindly biased in favor of Putin and therefore incapable of defending American interests as secretary of state. There's another way, though, to describe Tillerson's activities in places such as Russia, Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Venezuela: He was doing his job. It's been Tillerson's responsibility while running Exxon to make money for shareholders by investing in oil projects around the world, including in some countries run by despicable leaders. And that's what he did, very successfully. "It's a mistake to confuse knowing Russia with being pro-Russia," Chicago billionaire Tom Pritzker told the Journal. "He knows Russia, which means he's ahead of the learning curve." Pritzker alludes to a broader point about judging Tillerson: Many top government officials come from the business world. All are expected to pivot to doing the people's work. For example, Steven Mnuchin, a Trump Cabinet pick, would be the third treasury secretary in recent years to come from Goldman Sachs. What counts is whether each candidate has suitable experience and talent for the job, and can take orders from the president. Tillerson, an engineer who has run Exxon since 2006, has the right background to be secretary of state. As CEO of an energy company with about 75,000 employees around the world, he manages a complex organization with about three times as many workers as the State Department has diplomats and civil servants. Some analysts say Exxon is almost a nation unto itself. Negotiations and risk management are at the core of what Tillerson does at Exxon, and are what he would do as secretary of state. At 64, he was scheduled to retire next March but now plans to step down at year's end. Part of Tillerson's pivot would be to separate himself from Exxon and his oil industry perspective, and that includes divesting his $240 million in Exxon Mobil stock and other holdings. First, however, Tillerson must showcase his skills as a diplomat under fire when he faces Senate questioning. He'll have a chance to articulate his views on America's role in the world and speak as proxy for Trump, whose opinions about Putin seem both underinformed and troublingly carefree. So does Tillerson as diplomat support the use of sanctions to tame the Russian bear? Can he manage tricky relations with China? Not make things worse in the Middle East? Tillerson will either make a convincing argument for his candidacy or fail the job interview. — CHICAGO TRIBUNE